So a guy walks into his doctor’s office with a nasty-looking cut on his arm. The doctor examines it and says, “Hmm, that’s pretty bad. Why don’t you wait until gangrene sets in and then come back and see me?” Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? We don’t withhold medical care until a patient is in critical condition and the cost of treatment is exponentially higher.
Yet for too long, this has been our policy approach to environmental issues. For example, elected officials have been gridlocked on legislation like the Climate Protection Act and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule. Even when we act on wildlife conservation issues, we typically wait until a species or ecosystem is in dire straits before rallying to try to preserve it. In a few instances, we’ve managed to pull a species back from the brink of extinction — the American bison and black-footed ferret are notable examples. But our losses outnumber our victories to such a staggering extent that we are now in our planet’s sixth mass extinction crisis, with a significant number of species at risk of disappearing forever.
So what do we do? We can’t just give up, or point to previous mass extinction crises — such as the loss of dinosaurs — and rationalize that the planet recovered. People’s lives right now are tied to the health of species and ecosystems in ways that we scientists are just beginning to understand.
Our reliance on wildlife is more than honeybees pollinating our crops, or wolves allowing our temperate forests to renew themselves by limiting the number of deer. It is more than the complex ecosystems of wetlands and coral reefs that protect our coasts from storms. And it is assuredly more than the food, medicines, livelihoods and materials that our living natural resources provide. Wildlife — our plants, animals and fish — don’t just live in ecosystems. They are critical components of those ecosystems. Remove one, and the system changes.
This philosophy, known as “One Health,” states that the health and well-being of all living things is connected. Evidence supporting the scope and impacts of these linkages is mounting, from around the world. We are just beginning to understand and able to estimate the economic value of ecosystem goods and services that contribute to a healthy planet. An excellent review shows the variety of ways that loss of biodiversity can increase incidence of disease in people, whether in our own backyards or the tropics.